CARSON CITY, Nevada – When it was time for Winone James to return to school, her family hid her in the bushes outside their home in Carson Valley to prevent officials at Stewart Indian School from finding her.
James, a Woshu tribe from Nevada and California, was among more than 20,000 students who were sent to boarding school as part of a federal program designed to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the dominant Euro-American culture. She attended for one year, but her family feared for her life.
“I remember my grandmother didn’t want me to go back to Stuart because she thought I’d never go home again,” she said in an interview with the University of Nevada, Reno’s story initiative in 1984.
Stewart School in Carson City is among more than 350 boarding schools that the US Department of the Interior plans to study as part of the Federal Boarding School initiative review, which includes investigations of student deaths and known and possible burial sites.
On Friday, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak heard stories from tribal elders about the school’s history. Governor, tribal leaders, heads of government agencies, and internal affairs officials discussed how the state that financed the school and helped collect children to send there can contribute to federal efforts to counter historical injustice and intergenerational trauma and reading children killed in boarding schools.
Descendants of the Payutes, Woshu and Shoshone, who attended Stewart School during the 90 years it was in operation, told stories of gifts that were offered to bring Indigenous children to school; students trying to escape because of hunger; and extreme overcrowding in hostels.
“It is a tragedy that it has taken the federal government so long to honestly reflect the immoral program that has existed here for generations,” Sisolak said at the Indian Stewart School, which now houses a cultural center and museum.
The governor apologized on behalf of the state and pledged to work fully with the Home Office and its First Secretary for Native American Affairs, Deb Haaland, as they review records and research past federal government policies and oversight of Native American boarding schools.
Stacey Montut, executive director of the Nevada Indian Affairs Commission, said it was unclear how many children attended or died at the Stewart Indian School.
While the federal government has never focused on student tracking, Montut said, the fact that it took all records and archival material when it closed the school in 1980 made it difficult to keep track of deaths.
Despite the lack of available archival material, Native Americans in Nevada continue to reckon with the history of boarding schools, she said: “There is not a single Payute, Shoshone or Washu in this state who is not directly related to this campus. “
Because the remains of the children were found in a boarding school in Canada, tribes in both the United States and the United States pushed the government to accept the enduring consequences of a policy that Pennsylvania boarding school founder Richard Pratt described in the 19th century as “Kill the Indian, save that man. “
Native children at the age of 4 were forcibly taken from their families and sent to boarding schools outside the reservation. Their hair was cut. They were converted to Christianity. And they were forbidden to speak their native language. Military discipline was often applied to them, and until the reforms of the mid-20th century, curricula were mainly based on vocational skills, and for girls – housekeeping.
Historians say many schools were overcrowded, physical abuse was widespread, and many students died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Tribal chiefs believe the children were secretly buried somewhere on the Stewart school campus, but have yet to decide whether to dig up the bodies and return them home, or honor their memory by leaving them in the ground, as is customary in many tribes, including the Shoshone. … In New Mexico, Utah, and elsewhere, researchers use GPR to search for remains. Sisolak said it would be the decision of the tribal leaders how to research history.
Amber Torres, chair of the Payute Walker River Tribe, said assimilation policies such as boarding schools are depriving Native Americans and their descendants of Native languages. She wants Nevada to teach languages like yours, Paiute, and Shoshone in public schools for the language to survive.
“If he dies, we will die,” she said.
Metz is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that sends journalists to local newsrooms to cover hidden issues.